6 lessons Apple retail taught the industry in 2001

Apple opened its first Apple retail stores 20 years ago on May 19, 2001 — and soon became one of the most successful retailers in the world — at least, it was in the time before COVID-19.

What Apple did with retail

“The Apple stores offer an amazing new way to buy a computer,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “Rather than just hear about megahertz and megabytes, customers can now learn and experience the things they can actually do with a computer, like make movies, burn custom music CDs, and publish their digital photos on a personal website.”

As ever with Jobs, he told the truth. These weren’t computer retailers in the conventional sense. That wasn’t what Apple wanted to achieve.

These shops provided experiences designed to reinforce the significance of its products. A lot of Windows users bought their first Macs there.

I can still recall critics who thought Apple’s decision to launch its own chain of retail stores was doomed to fail. “I give them two years before they’re turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake,” then-president of Channel Marketing Corp. David Goldstein said at the time.

That wasn’t the smartest call

Instead, the chain became a retail success story, generating more profit per square foot than anywhere else and attracting thousands of daily visitors before the pandemic last year.

Apple turned these spaces into flagships that exemplified the company’s brand, worked them to build connections with customers and used them to provide the best possible environment in which to explore its products. Along the way, it saw many competitors attempt to emulate its store experiences, while those beyond the Apple garden borrowed these notions to help them improve their retail experience.

These days, particularly at the premium end of the market, you can easily see the influence of Apple on store design. So, in what way was Apple ahead of its time?

Apple’s six lessons

I spoke with Dave Bruno, director of retail industry insights at retail technology company Aptos, to find out what Apple did right.

“Apple’s iPods completely reimagined the way we discover, purchase, store and consume music,” he said. “iPhones completely reimagined the mobile phone experience. iPads defined tablet computing. And Apple Stores completely reimagined the role of the store in the shopping journey.”

Here are the key lessons he thinks Apple taught the retail industry:

1. Unify the brand

“The iconic Apple brand was built on its ability to consistently deliver exceptional user experiences,” Bruno said. “User experiences are the North Star that has guided its development of every operating system, device and app for decades. Apple customers have responded with fierce loyalty and commitment to the brand. When Apple opened Apple Stores 20 years ago, the highly customer-centric, efficient and intuitive store experiences both mirrored and enriched Apple’s brand promise to its customers. And their stores became a natural extension of the relied-upon brand.”

2. Offer friction-free commerce

“Apple Stores essentially defined the concept of frictionless commerce. Once the iPhone (and later the iPad) were released, Apple Store sales associates began using the same devices that invented and redefined consumer computing behaviors to check inventory, create a shopping cart, accept payment and generate a receipt all without leaving the customer’s side.

“This type of transaction may seem commonplace today, but when Apple introduced it 14 years ago it was revolutionary,” Bruno said. “Customers love the intimacy and efficiency of this retail moment, and many retailers have been trying to deliver similar friction-free experiences.”

3. Focus on the experience, not the transaction

“While Apple certainly delivers frictionless transactions, its stores make you feel like the transaction is the least important part of your experience,” Bruno said.

“Apple dedicates huge chunks of what many analysts consider “prime selling space” to anything but selling. Rather, Apple invests in spaces designed to encourage you to explore, relax and experiment with its products. Theaters, viewing rooms and playrooms give people the opportunity to immerse themselves inside the Apple brand. Selling is a seeming afterthought to experience, interaction and education.”

4. Trust is really, really important

“Retail has long understood that the more people trust you, the more they buy from you. Apple Stores engender deep trust with customers by staffing their stores with knowledgeable, helpful and available experts. And while the Genius Bar certainly evokes deep support and expertise, associate expertise is by no means limited to the Genius Bar. Every store associate has deep training that leads to well-rounded product knowledge — and they have tools at hand to help answer many more questions.”

5. Integrate everything

“Apple Stores were omnichannel-aware from day one. Purchases made in one store or channel are and have always been immediately available to staff in the entire Apple ecosystem. Genius Bar appointments made online could be amended, changed or cancelled in store, and vice versa. Inventory availability has never been more than a tap away from customers and associates alike, and every Apple Store experience is also a (seamlessly integrated) Apple brand experience.”

6. Data drives outcomes

“Because Apple Stores were omnichannel-aware from the beginning, the stores had access to (and added to) a treasure trove of consumer data. Apple was one of the first to actually realize the long-anticipated vision of ‘a single view of the customer.’

“By coupling that single view of the customer with a single view of the enterprise, Apple could put that data to work to drive customer outcomes that led to greater trust, more sales and even deeper loyalty.”

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